James Blake claimed earlier this year to have “subdued a generation” with his minimalist electronica. He may have had his tongue in his cheek, but there’s no doubt he also has pop’s A-list, if not exactly dancing, then certainly in thrall to his tune: Beyoncé, Frank Ocean and Bon Iver are among his collaborators; Kanye West and Madonna his admirers.
His outward success - winning 2013’s Mercury Prize, Grammy nominations - is all the more laudable given the austere nature of his material. Blake doesn’t so much write songs as sketch them out, using dubstep rhythms, skittish R’n’B, and a gospel-tinged take on soul to suggest the work of a vulnerable, introspective young man. His falsetto, which tonight recalls an earthier Anohni, adds to the imaginative mix.
Now based in LA, were he made this year’s third album, the sprawling The Colour in Anything, Blake makes an unlikely star. He’s polite and unassuming between songs, leaving the detail in the music. And tonight that takes on quite the transformation. On record, Blake requires your attention but seldom demands it. Tonight, save the odd occasion when he lures you into a state of fragility via emotive balladry (particularly 'The Colour in Anything') he instead adds heft and intensity.
Sat among his keyboards stage left with drummer Ben Assiter and guitarist Rob McAndrew in a line to his right - he makes a point that they’re performing without computers - Blake still underpins tracks with sorrowful piano and scant beats, but the sketches become fully formed, like a painter filling his outlines with translucent colour. Sub-bass vibrates through the body; guitar shivers and soars; electronic bleeps like the ones that spiral during 'Timeless' are more urgent. 'I Hope My Life (1-800 mix)' is incessant and euphoric, while during closer 'The Wilhelm Scream’, his voice is consumed by an almighty layer of swirling noise, giving the effect of whistling at a jet engine.
He ends on, yes, a subdued note, solo and dimly lit, with the gospel refrain of 'Measurements', exiting in total darkness to the sound of his own voice on loop. The result is startling: like much of Blake’s output, it’s difficult to think of anyone else in his position that could pull off such an unconventional move.Reuse content